For a man who has lost the support of more than 80 per cent of his MPs, Jeremy Corbyn is in high spirits. “I have an ability to very conveniently forget some of the unpleasant things that were said about me,” he quipped, by way of explanation, at the launch of his second Labour leadership campaign. But the greatest cause of his ebullience is the 183,541 who have applied to vote as “registered supporters”. The reckoning among Labour sources is that most have done so in order to back his leadership (as, according to polls, existing members do). For Corbyn, who once advocated annual contests, the campaign offers welcome relief from the hard grind of parliamentary politics and party management. Since becoming leader, he has often nostalgically recalled the rallies of last summer. Like a rock star released from the studio, he is visibly buoyed by the prospect of hitting the road again.
Corbyn did not even deign to mention his opponent Owen Smith in his speech at London’s Institute of Education. But he did issue a series of coded rebukes to his critics. He noted that a year ago “there were those in our party in parliament” who were “unsure” about whether to oppose the welfare bill (Smith and other shadow cabnet ministers abstained). Having been charged with a lack of policy and insufficient concern for gender equality, he announced a proposal that addressed both. The next Labour government, he announced, would force all companies with more than 21 employees to publish equality pay audits. In an echo of William Beveridge, the Liberal architect of the welfare state, he vowed to tackle the “five ills” of modern Britain: inequality, neglect, insecurity, prejudice and discrimination.
Smith’s principal attack is that Corbyn will never get to chance to fulfil this pledge – because he will never hold power. Many allege that the Labour leader doesn’t even aspire to win general elections. It was a criticism that Corbyn acknowledged without truly confronting. He vowed to form a government and later declared “that the polls will change and will improve for us” (the most recent put Labour on just 29 per cent) but said little about the route to victory. For now, though the Damoclean sword of an early election remains, there is only one contest that counts. At no moment did Corbyn evidence any doubt that he will win. On that count, he is almost certainly right.